Last month, The New York Times' Ariel Kaminer announced an essay contest in the paper's op-ed section: Carnivorous readers must defend, in 600 words or less, why it is ethical to eat meat. Entries were judged by some of the foremost authorities on modern food practices, including Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light (where the ladies at?), who then selected a winner from the 3,000-plus entries.
This past week the paper announced that Jay Bost, a self-described “a farmworker, plant geek, agroecologist and foodie for the past 20 years,” who teaches at a small work college in rural North Carolina was selected as the winner for his essay “Sometimes It's More Ethical to Eat Meat Than Vegetables,” which summarizes thusly:
For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.
A common theme running through most of the entries, the editors noted, was a dissatisfaction — even disgust — with modern meat raising methods. It seems that most finalists agreed that while some current forms of processing meat were not ethical, there was a feasible path in which meat could be consumed ethically.
Another essay titled “I'm About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years” by P.E.T.A president Ingrid Newkirk, which won the largest amount of online votes, posited that it was ethical to eat meat grown “in vitro,” which is grown in laboratories using real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, and through modern food technology has become an scientific reality.
Temple Grandin, an animal welfare expert and professor of animal welfare at Colorado State University known for her ethical redesigns of cattle processing plants, submitted an extremely compelling essay as well, thought it was not chosen as one of the contest's finalist. Grandin, who is diagnosed with autism, explains that the question of meat-eating ethics struck her several years previously during her work. “In a moment of insight, I thought, none of the cattle going into my system would have existed unless people had bred and raised them.” She adds,”killing animals for food is ethical if the animals have what the Farm Animal Welfare Council in England calls a life worth living.”
Our favorite response was a quip from author and columnist Calvin Trillin, a world-class gourmand, who was asked by Public Editor Art Brisbane to submit a piece for the contest. Trillin needed only 9 of the 600 words available to explain eating meat: “If they had a chance, they would eat us.”
As you would imagine, the online comment section includes all types of accusations: pro-meat propaganda, veg-head posturing, to high-minded elitism on the part of the Times. The essay contest, regardless of whether you agree with the top entries or not, seemed to further ignite the national conversation about the way we consume meat in America.
What are your thoughts on the ethics of meat-eating? Is the public becoming more conscious of the way in which cow becomes steak, and if so, does that change the way we think about a carnivorous lifestyle?